This is not soul food.
Soul food is rich in both history and calories, a rib-sticking fusion of African cooking techniques and southern ingredients. It’s a cuisine born of poverty and necessity that’s perhaps as symbolic as it is delicious, the sort of thing that inspires popular historians and high-low chefs and understandably possessive custodians.
This is, you know, Shake ‘N Bake. Without the shake.
But hey: if you’re wondering what a midcentury, Jewish California housewife would serve her family in lieu of fried chicken (oy, all that oil!), you’ve come to the right place. It’s pretty easy to make, provided you’ve got all the ingredients; it’s pretty easy to eat, too. Even if it would probably inspire some serious side-eye from an actual southerner.
1 fryer, cut in 8 pieces
Salt and pepper
Garlic powder [How much? There’s no amount given, either for this or for the salt and pepper. So I just dropped a few shakes of each spice into a ramekin and mixed them together; I ended up with some leftover, though not a ton]
Buttermilk [Again, how much? Couldn’t tell you, since Nonnie didn’t specify; I decided to fill a regular-sized bowl about 1/3 of the way up, and ended up not wasting any buttermilk]
Bread crumbs [another eyeball! I used about three pieces of bread’s worth, which seemed to be a good amount]
Gulden’s mustard [I cheated and used French’s, because I don’t think Nonnie would have wanted me to buy a whole new mustard. Also, laziness]
Wash chicken [don’t ever wash your chicken!!] and pat dry. Season chicken with salt, pepper, and garlic powder [by rubbin’ ’em right on there].
Spread mustard on each piece of chicken, and dip first in buttermilk and then coat lightly with bread crumbs. [This is a messy, semi-gross process, especially the part where you’re massaging mustard into the chicken. Just go with it—it’ll be over soon, especially if you’re not also tasked with taking pictures.]
Place chicken on a cookie sheet; cover with tinfoil, and bake in 400 oven for 30 minutes. Remove foil and increase heat to 450. Cook 20 minutes longer or until chicken is golden brown and tender. [Mine needed an extra 10 minutes in the oven before it reached the level of crispness I was after.]
The verdict: Next time, I might try soaking the chicken in seasoned buttermilk for a few hours before cooking it, in order to lock in even more flavor. I might also try a more overt shake ‘n’ bake technique, which would prevent the finger-grossness that comes along with smearing a variety of crap onto a piece of raw chicken. I might skip the mustard, since I could barely taste its effect on the chicken, and I might try using cornflakes or panko in the coating for some extra crispness. (And either hot or smoked paprika and some mustard powder as well.)
Oh, and I’d definitely place the chicken on a rack above a baking sheet instead of directly onto the sheet next time, which would prevent the bottom of each piece from getting soggy.
You know what, though? Each of those moves would create an improved product—but Nonnie’s buttermilk chicken as written is pretty great as is, crisp on the outside and moist on the inside without punching you in the gut the way a piece of real fried chicken would. It’s fake soul food, but it’s still pretty soul-satisfying. Especially when matched with greens, cauliflower tabouli, and a generous coating of barbecue sauce from a bottle you got for free at Dinosaur in exchange for filling out a survey. (What, you guys don’t have one of those?)